Gottfried Helnwein Retrospective
25 May to 13 October 2013
It was a surprise – but a very welcome and satisfying one – to find that Pina Bausch was one of the women among Helnwein’s 48 Portraits.
She belongs in the company of Billie Holiday and Hannah Arendt, two of the other subjects there.
We begin, though, with the figure of the child, usually bandaged and so injured in some way, in distress. A typical such work:
Her plight (it is a girl, invariably) suggests a situation of unspecified physical or perhaps sexual abuse. Or an institution that allows or metes out such treatment.
What that institution might be is alluded to in some of the later works, which also challenge the viewer in various ways. Two in particular spring to mind. One is a watercolour, Life Unworthy of Life, which was originally published in 1979 in response to a statement by the distinguished psychiatrist Dr Heinrich Gross. His statement was a kind of apologia for the Nazi policy of euthanasia. This work (see also this article) should be compared with the following Nativity scene:
A curious mash-up: SS officers stand around a woman, perhaps the Virgin Mary, perhaps a maiden of pure Teutonic stock. The confluence of Christian iconography and Nazi ideology (the Immaculate Conception / eugenics) is uncomfortably apt, to say the least.
Are you looking for some light relief here? Will a film noir cityscape featuring a sinister Donald Duck fit the bill?
Well, maybe not, though it is a reminder that Helnwein curated an exhibition of Disney cartoonist Carl Barks’ work in 1994.
To be just to Helnwein, there are certain works that don’t disturb one unduly: the 48 Portraits are inspiring, Helnwein’s designs for the stage (mainly opera) and his theatre posters are bold and inventive if sometimes controversial, the portraits of writers (Bukowski), artists (Warhol) and rock stars (Jagger) are fairly straightforward, even innocuous. But that cannot be said of the two series of paintings entitled respectively The Disasters of War and Murmur of the Innocents. There the figure of the child recurs, but now she is entangled in the catastrophes of our time.
This is an important retrospective of an engaged artist who has always been up for a challenge. Not for the faint of heart or the easily shocked, that would be my rider. It is at he Albertina until 13 October, further details can be found here.